Empty Cup: Do Lightning have anything left?

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After a controversial overtime winner in Game 4, the Colorado Avalanche are only one win away from the Stanley Cup. (Getty Images)
After a controversial overtime winner in Game 4, the Colorado Avalanche are only one win away from the Stanley Cup. (Getty Images)

Hockey fans across the world can rejoice as we got the Stanley Cup Final we all deserved for surviving the pandemic, a dynamic showdown between what clearly are the league’s two best teams this year. But all good things must come to an end, and the Colorado Avalanche appear on the verge of their first title since 2001, after Nazem Kadri had his Kirk Gibson moment, scoring a controversial overtime winner in his return to action.

At the midway point of the series, we have a few observations, with the Lightning facing the proverbial music.

The controversy surrounding Kadri’s winner shouldn’t ruin his moment

Nazem Kadri wasn’t going to let the culminating point of his career be ruined by anything, immediately undergoing thumb surgery with the goal of eventually returning to the Final. It took eighteen days for Kadri to recover from the injury — and let’s face it, he is certainly laboring through the lingering effects of the ailment. Kadri received a storybook ending to this saga on Wednesday night, roofing the game-winner into the top of the net, and it took a few uneasy seconds for the officials to locate the puck.

In the midst of the best season of his career, all Kadri wants to do is contribute to the Avalanche’s goal of lifting an elusive Cup, but of course his moment in the sun was imbued with controversy. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, perhaps aided by the video sleuths of Twitter, vigorously stated that Kadri’s goal should’ve been overturned, with six Avalanche skaters on the ice, as Nathan MacKinnon took his time to hop over the boards. We’re sure in parts of South Florida that Kadri’s goal will be viewed like the Zapruder film.

“This one is going to sting much more than others, just because it was taking on, it was potentially. I don’t know. It’s hard for me. It’s going to be hard for me to speak. I’m going to have to speak. … You’re going to see what I mean when you see the winning goal. And my heart breaks for the players. Because we probably still should be playing,” Cooper said post-game, before leaving the podium without entertaining any other questions.

Kadri, as you’d expected, disagreed with Cooper’s assessment:

Cooper is an exceptionally bright guy, he’s one of the league’s best coaches and he certainly knows how to work a room. Pretending as if MacKinnon’s infraction is a glaring problem that affected the play, instead of a routine occurrence that never gets called, is an act of retroactive gamesmanship at best and ultimately futile, at worst. And whether the goal gets called back is perhaps immaterial when discussing Kadri’s Final debut.

Kadri was outstanding in his return, with the Avalanche holding a 78.63 percent share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 when he was on the ice, and in over 14 minutes alongside Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado outchanced Tampa Bay 17-10 via Natural Stat Trick. Although he could barely put any force behind his shot, Kadri outsmarted Mikhail Sergachev with a fantastic deke and still had the composure to beat Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made countless jaw-dropping saves to keep the Lightning’s hopes alive.

“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life, so I figured I’d stop waiting and try to join the party,” Kadri said post-game.

Welcome to the party, Naz. A much larger celebration potentially awaits you Friday night.

Makar and Toews responded emphatically from their worst game of the playoffs

By some distance, Cale Makar and Devon Toews have established themselves as the best defense pairing in the league, the former winning the Norris Trophy, while the latter would be a lock for Team Canada in any best-on-best competition. Makar will almost certainly add the Conn Smythe to his trophy case if the Avalanche win the series, and Game 4 was an encouraging sign from Colorado’s star duo, as they played their worst game of the playoffs in the Game 3 loss.

Makar and Toews were both on the ice for four goals — three on the power play — and they weren’t just incidental passengers, either. Makar let Anthony Cirelli blow by him, then Toews failed to pick him up on Tampa’s first goal. Toews carelessly tossed the puck through the middle of the ice, which directly led to Ondrej Palat’s goal and both players continuously failed to box out crashing forwards. Although their underlying numbers indicated that some of this amounted to bad luck, the Avalanche needed a response, and they delivered.

It didn’t always look that way. Cirelli beat the Makar-Toews pairing 36 seconds into Game 4, winning a loose puck in front of the net, as the Avalanche stood pedestrian. This could’ve potentially had a snowball effect but Makar found his footing on the power play, where he’s playing quarterback like Russell Wilson, making a number of improvisations at the blue line that only he can. MacKinnon’s power play got the Avalanche back on track, Makar and Toews paid better attention to Lightning forwards hunting for rebounds, and controlled play for the rest of the game.

Toews, who was particularly bad in Game 3, responded with four hits, three individual scoring chances, and a team-best 66.18 Corsi For share at 5-on-5, while playing over 32 minutes in all situations. Makar, for his part, added three hits, three individual scoring chances, while logging 34 minutes in the victory, while playing a game-high 34 minutes and 43 seconds.

Makar’s in pretty good company, too.

Makar and Toews has vastly outshone Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev and Ryan McDonagh throughout the series and with another stellar performance like they had in the three Avalanche victories, the league’s best defense pairing will be champions.

Tampa Bay is limping to the finish line, does it have anything left in the tank?

It’s pretty difficult to quantify the physical toll that three consecutive Cup runs takes on a team, so it’s perhaps easier just to list the running injury report.

Brayden Point remains out for the Lightning with an undisclosed injury after playing in the first two games of the Final, having missed the second and third round entirely from a lower-body injury. Erik Cernak hobbled off and couldn’t put any weight on his left foot after blocking a shot from Nathan MacKinnon in the second period of Game 4, returning to the bench for the third period, but ultimately didn’t take another shift. Cernak ranks third in blocked shots this playoffs with 42, while his teammate Ryan McDonagh leads the league with 62 blocked shots, and will likely see his playing time increase in Game 5.

Anthony Cirelli went to the locker room after his arm was cut by teammate Alex Killorn’s skate blade, and though he was able to return for the final frames, he was clearly in pain. Nikita Kucherov is still playing through an injury suffered in Game 3, and the Lightning are keenly aware that no one’s coming to the rescue.

“No one outside the dressing room — you guys sometimes you think you know. You don’t,” Lighting captain Steven Stamkos said to The Athletic’s Joe Smith. “It’s challenging for both teams. You have guys playing through a lot of stuff right now. Guys are just battling.”

Pat Maroon put it more succinctly.

You can’t fault the Lightning for breaking down; the toll of playing through three postseasons, two during the peak of a global pandemic, is something to be lauded. Colorado plays at a pace that makes life hell for opponents on a normal day, let alone while playing through pain and injury. Through four games, the Avalanche are dominating the shot attempts and possession, and it’s a pain in the ass to retrieve the puck from them. We’re not questioning their proven resolve, but do the Lightning have anything left in the tank?

The quiet impact of Mikko Rantanen’s playmaking

Cale Makar won the Norris and the Conn Smythe Trophy is impending. Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin played a perfect Game 2. Nazem Kadri’s return to the Final was from the theater of dreams. And somewhere along the line, Mikko Rantanen’s steady playmaking has been overlooked through four games. No matter to Rantanen and the Avalanche, of course, winning is the only goal. Rantanen quietly recorded eight assists through four games, and he’s been an indispensable part of their postseason run.

Rantanen scored in every game against the Oilers and his combination of speed and power is nearly unmatched — he’s outstanding at fending off smaller defenders on the rush, using his acceleration and size as a forcefield while cutting to the net. You can’t hide a six-foot-four, 215-pound winger in plain sight, and his impact has profoundly affected the Cup Final.

The 25-year-old led the Avalanche with 92 points during the regular season and that’s largely because he can generate offense in a variety of different ways. Rantanen is generating some of his primary assists by shooting with the express aim of creating a rebound. Below are two examples:

The first goal of the Final is a result of Rantanen shooting aggressively to create offense. Bowen Byram enters the zone with a head of steam and dishes the puck off to Rantanen. Byram keeps skating, occupying the attention of Ryan McDonagh, who inadvertently screens Andrei Vasilevskiy while trying to pick up the crashing defenseman. Rantanen can whip the puck with real velocity and it trickles through Vasilevskiy, who can’t account for Landeskog on the rebound. If that seems overly simplistic, there’s more evidence that shows that Rantanen’s intentions were by design.

Rantanen is often stationed outside the faceoff circle on the power play and he helps orchestrate MacKinnon’s goal in Game 4. Makar’s shot attempt ricochets off the boards onto MacKinnon, who picks up the pick and turns away from a half-hearted stick-check by Nick Paul. Two more Lightning defenders converge on MacKinnon, who dishes a cross-ice pass over to Rantanen. MacKinnon keeps moving his feet and slides nearly into the crease, while Paul, Cernak and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare stand idly by. Rantanen aims it directly off Vasilevskiy’s pad and though MacKinnon fails to get a stick on the puck, it goes off his skate and in, with the Lightning joining the audience.

Here’s one more. Rantanen can play a stellar east-west game but he’s excellent in the cycle and can capitalize on turnovers. Rantanen provides some puck support for J.T. Compher, anticipating that his linemate will get the puck deep into the zone, but he remains patience and it pays dividends. Instead of converging on Ondrej Palat, Rantanen seals off the wall, blocking out the passing lane. Palat instinctively tries to tap it back to Hedman, but Rantanen swoops in and immediately fires it out to Nichushkin, who walks in for his second goal of Game 2. It’s a heads-up play, one that looks easy on review, but it takes a keen eye for the net, along with superior talent to make this happen.

Makar and Rantanen both have 20 assists throughout the postseason, one of them is getting all the accolades they deserve, but it’s business as usual for the other. Rantanen has been an essential part of the Avalanche’s ascension from doormat to powerhouse, and he’s getting his teammates involved in a wide variety of ways throughout the Final.

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